Forty years ago, on September 11, 1973, Chile’s CIA-backed General Augusto Pinochet staged a coup d’état, toppling Salvador Allende’s democratically elected, socialist government and enslaving the country with a brutal military dictatorship that would last almost two decades. In the weeks that followed the coup, one Canadian whistleblower’s actions saved thousands of refugees and forever changed Canada’s foreign policy, ultimately transforming the character of the country. For this, CJFE honours Bob Thomson with its second-ever Integrity Award, which recognizes Canadians who act in the public interest when they speak out against dangerous, unethical or illegal practices they uncovered or experienced in the course of doing their jobs.
In the days and weeks after the coup, the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, became ground zero for some of the worst atrocities ever inflicted on a people by its own government. More than 250,000 were rounded up. Of those, 3,000 were killed or became “desaparecidos,” never to be seen again. Intersecting the city, the Mapocho River became a watery conveyer belt for bodies. Corpses were taken from the stadium by the truckload. Bodies with signs of torture littered the main streets. Gunshots rang out night and day, amplified in a city quieted by mass fear.
In Canada, the Trudeau government quickly recognized Pinochet’s regime, based on information fed to the Department of External Affairs (now foreign affairs) in Ottawa. They made the decision based on confidential, classified cables from Andrew Ross, then Canada’s ambassador to Chile. Ross clearly supported the coup, describing the mass killings as “abhorrent but understandable.” In one of those cables, he wrote that it would be a mistake to consider the military’s actions a “rightist coup,” and he suggested that not recognizing the junta’s control could delay the return to democratic process. “Chile has been on a prolonged political binge or trip and [the] military have assumed [a] probably thankless task of sobering it up as benefits [the] caretaker role. Once painful withdrawal symptoms have been overcome, they will probably be delighted to arrange elections,” he wrote.
Bob Thomson, then a 28-year-old civil servant at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Ottawa, read those cables, and they made him angry. He was angry that no one was challenging Ross’s view, and worried about what impact it would have on Canada’s policy toward Chile. And so began his campaign of conscientious dissent.
Thomson copied a selection of cables, put them in a large envelope and left the CIDA office. He called NDP MP John Harney’s office and arranged to meet with the MP’s executive assistant at Ottawa’s Sparks Street mall, where he handed off the documents.
Harney was one of the members of Parliament raising questions in the House about Canada’s role in recognizing Chile’s new regime. He made sure the cables got into the hands of the press, and he also raised the issue in the House of Commons, directly targeting Mitchell Sharp, then external affairs minister.
The cables whipped up a furor among politicos in Ottawa, and the media had a field day, describing Ross’s insights as “grotesque” misperceptions and “a classic example of how not to engage in diplomatic reporting.”
Sharp believed that the person who leaked the cables had put the ambassador’s life in danger and jeopardized diplomatic relations, although with the Chilean military in control, it is hard to imagine who would have been a threat to the Ambassador. He thus immediately set out to find and charge the person responsible using a bit of cold-war spy trickery. The ministry released three versions of a phony cable—supposedly from Ross—outlining a new aid program for Chile. The fake cables, each containing the same text but with a different amount of proposed aid, were sent to three people suspected of the leak, one of whom was Thomson. All the ministry had to do was sit back, wait for the leak and match the dollar amount to their suspect. That’s how they caught Bob Thomson.
During this time, church groups, solidarity networks, trade unions, students and academics across Canada were calling for the government to grant asylum to Chileans fleeing persecution. Realizing they could no longer plead indifference, and needing to verify which, if any, of Ross’s claims were true, external affairs dispatched Geoffrey Pearson to Chile to bear personal witness. Pearson would later cable Ottawa with word that the situation constituted a refugee emergency, adding that he believed Chileans “would make good Canadians.” As a result, the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy determined Canada should accept between 300 and 1,000 refugees.
Four months after the coup, “Special Movement Chile” was in motion. On January 10, 1974, a Canadian Forces jet landed in Toronto carrying 137 Chilean refugees, the first of more than 7,000 men, women and children who would be given safe haven in Canada.
Meanwhile, the man who blew the whistle was under the gun. During questioning, Thomson was called disloyal and an unfit Canadian, and told he would never work for the government again. Colleagues at CIDA and external affairs were split, some rejecting him, others siding with him. Thomson was never charged, nor was he jailed. Instead of firing him, CIDA gave Thomson the opportunity to resign. He took it.
But that wasn’t the end of his saga. More than a decade later, in 1985, Thomson was denied a security clearance for a job at Agriculture Canada. Because of that and other allegations made by CSIS (all proven wrong), he was forced to fight to get that clearance reinstated. Seven years of appearances in front of CSIS, the Security and Intelligence Review, a series of lower courts and finally the Supreme Court of Canada, and Thomson ultimately lost the battle. All that time and effort, he now says, were worth it.
The Ross cables marked the beginning of a sea change in Canadian foreign policy and helped set new standards for international diplomacy. The leaked cables also led to a complete reshaping of Canada’s refugee policies. The law was changed to include refugees as a special class in the immigration act. Cable-gate also thrust the issue of human rights onto Canada’s social agenda and cemented the country’s reputation as a haven for those who seek freedom and peace from political persecution. Plus, of course, it forever changed the lives of more than 7,000 Chileans, and with their arrival, the fabric of Canadian society itself.
When it comes to receiving the Integrity Award, Thomson is quick to point out how he was only one of a large cast who played a role, and that the award belongs to many. Still, the leaked cables were the spark that lit a fire the government soon couldn’t control. And of all the people fuelling that fire, Thomson was the one who got burned.
After being forced out of the civil service, Thomson worked for the not-for-profit Canadian University Service Overseas, completed a master’s degree in international affairs and became an international development consultant. He set up Fair TradeMark Canada (now Fairtrade Canada), which initially certified fair trade coffee. The soft-spoken, self-described “shit disturber” is now retired, but he remains a motivated social activist. He’s been out of the fair trade business for more than a decade, but still calls himself a “slowcialist.” He describes his current career in the degrowth movement as an attempt to help “consciencitize” people to a simpler form of living in order to raise awareness of civilization’s “unsustainable industrial metabolism.”
Bob Thomson will be honoured with the Integrity Award at the 16th annual CJFE Gala: A Night to Honour Courageous Reporting on December 4 at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto.
Kisha Ferguson (@KishaFerguson) is a writer and producer in Toronto.